Tills to Rattle and Hum Again for U2

The Sunday Times by Michael Ross (1998-09-20)

The band has reworked Sweetest Thing, an 11-year-old B-side, as a new hit – and reneged on their post-punk ideals by putting out a compilation album.

In recent weeks in their Dublin quayside studio U2 tidied up some business left unfinished for more than a decade since the recording of The Joshua Tree, their biggest-selling album. With producer Steve Lillywhite, who on
U2’s first three albums fashioned the wide-screen sound appropriated by countless others in the 1980s, they reworked Sweetest Thing, a song released unfinished as a B-side in 1987. Having run out of time on it at the end of the Joshua Tree sessions, U2 always intended having another shot at it, reckoning that it had hit potential.

The single, due for release on October 19, promises to be one of their bigger hits of this decade, something of an irony for a band who began the 1990s by trying to demolish the edifice of earnestness they had spent the 1980s building. Similarly, U2 The Best Of 1980-1990, which will follow on November 2, will buck the commercial decline U2 have experienced since Achtung Baby, their 1991 album. That offering sold 11.5m copies, Zooropa, its successor sold 7m and Pop, U2’s most recent album, sold 6m copies, despite the promotional back-up of the PopMart tour. The compilation, the band’s first, will be a reminder that U2 are much more a creature of the 1980s than of the 1990s.

Paul McGuinness, the group’s manager, describes the “best of” album and the B-sides compilation that will accompany it simply as a piece of housekeeping. “We’ve never allowed compilations of U2’s work before, preferring to allow the albums to be seen as separate pieces of work,” he says. “It was inevitable that we would do it sooner or later and this was a good gap. After this many years it’s fair to let people obtain the tracks on one album.”

The compilation, however, will be more than just a piece of housekeeping, more even than a much-needed boost to Polygram’s Christmas campaign. It will be an acknowledgment of sorts from a group that refused to sanction collections because they wanted to be seen as a working band, not a museum piece.

When they went on the road with the grand folly of PopMart, U2 repeatedly made the point that it was not a greatest-hits tour, thereby distinguishing themselves from the only other acts that tour at their level, the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd, who would be lynched if they did not deliver a hits package at their shows. Now, in a deal worth a reported Pounds 30m, U2 are finally joining the nostalgia market. After the 1980s compilation and at least one new album, a 1990s “best of” compilation will follow.

They could, of course, have done this and a lot more besides a long time ago for even greater and easier profit. Apart from the mid-priced live compilation Under a Blood Red Sky, which primed the pump for their commercial breakthrough, The Unforgettable Fire, U2 have not released a live album, nor have they scoured the vaults for unreleased material. They would have a very fine album if they simply drew together their collaborations with others and tracks recorded for tribute albums, such as Jesus Christ for Woody Guthrie or Hallelujah for Leonard Cohen.

Remaining faithful to their post-punk asceticism in this regard if in little else, they have thus become one of the most bootlegged bands ever. They do not rule out a box set of archived material but they have no plans for one.

The forthcoming compilation will reinforce their status as the archetypal 1980s band, full of passion and bluster and self-aggrandisement. Indeed, it will present a somewhat distorted portrait of a band that marched onwards into caricature as the decade progressed.

Their briskly majestic first single, 11 O’Clock Tick Tock, is a surprising omission, though it is available on the recently released compilation of producer Martin Hannett’s work. The intelligent qualification of that debut characterised some of U2’s best work during the 1980s, even during their most aggressively colonising phases, but that is a side to U2 scarcely represented on the compilation.

The larger problem the album highlights is the band’s position in history, something they have always kept at least one eye on. U2 came along after punk and 10 years before acid house, the two revolutions in popular music
since the 1960s. These democratising revolutions, though led respectively by the Sex Pistols and the Happy Mondays, were about technology and the means of production rather than about individual bands. Coming between
them, with their powerful symbiosis of the messianic and the evangelistic, U2 in the 1980s belonged more to the counter-revolution.

They will be remembered for The Edge’s pioneering work with echo and harmonics, they will be remembered too for the brave and bold way in which they began the 1990s afresh, but they will be remembered perhaps most of
all, and not altogether fairly, for their big-haired reactionary bluster in the 1980s, the decade that irony forgot.

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